CAPE TOWN – It’s not often that a Bulls pack boasting five Springboks are pushed around, but that is exactly what happened in Bloemfontein on Friday night as the Cheetahs claimed a well deserved 19-17 Super Rugby Unlocked victory.
The talk before the game was all about Bulls captain Duane Vermeulen’s return from injury that was supposed to bring a hard edge to the forwards, but it just never happened for Jake White’s side at the Free State Stadium.
That is a bit of an unfair reflection on the Cheetahs, though, who earned their triumph the hard way. Hawies Fourie’s charges are perennially known as a team who runs the ball from everywhere, and have little appetite for defence and the rough stuff.
But on Friday night, they rolled up their sleeves and took the fight to their more illustrious opponents, and won the battle fair and square. They showed greater hunger in the race for possession, winning the collisions and not allowing the Bulls to gain any foothold in the physical confrontations.
Big No 8 Jasper Wiese, flankers Junior Pokomela and Andisa Ntsila, as well as lock Carl Wegner, led the Cheetahs’ assault as they knocked the likes of Vermeulen, Trevor Nyakane and Marco van Staden backwards.
Hooker Reinach Venter set the tone in the opening minute when he claimed a ruck turnover from a Nyakane burst, and the visitors’ task became tougher after five minutes when fullback Gio Aplon – having just danced his way past a couple of defenders – left the field with a knee injury after being tackled by his opposite number Clayton Blommetjies.
Just when the Bulls appeared to put a few phases together with ball-in-hand, an error would creep in and they would lose possession or concede a penalty.
The home side also lost a vital cog in their set-up when captain Ruan Pienaar went off with a knee injury as well, but around that same 15th-minute mark, flyhalf Tian Schoeman put his side 3-0 up with a penalty.
Morné Steyn managed to level the score after 23 minutes, but the Cheetahs finally found their rhythm on attack soon after. A well-worked move saw right wing Malcolm Jaer create the overlap on the left, and Rosko Specman cantered over to increase the advantage to 10-3.
Schoeman slotted a second penalty for a 10-point halftime lead, and it looked like a long road back for the men from Pretoria.
— Official Blue Bulls (@BlueBullsRugby) October 16, 2020
The Cheetahs’ backs came into their own in the second half, with Blommetjies, Frans Steyn and Jaer keeping the defence guessing, while Schoeman turned the pressure into points with three further penalties to make it 19-6 with 20 minutes to go.
The Bulls slogged hard to get back into the match, with Steyn and replacement back Chris Smith knocking over two three-pointers and a thrilling final 10 minutes at 19-12.
The Bulls set up camp inside the Cheetahs 22 in the last few moments, and from a five-metre lineout, debutant hooker Joe van Zyl dotted down from a maul, but Smith was unable to land the angled conversion for the draw.
— Toyota Cheetahs (@CheetahsRugby) October 16, 2020
The hard work had been done by the Cheetahs, and they held on for a worthy triumph, while White will have to ponder a second consecutive unconvincing performance.
Cheetahs 19 – Try: Rosko Specman. Conversion: Tian Schoeman (1). Penalties: Schoeman (4).
Bulls 17 – Try: Joe van Zyl. Penalties: Morné Steyn (3), Chris Smith (1).